Thank goodness for literal titles. Otherwise I might be at a loss to ascertain just what exactly Eat Pray Love is about. Had I been without those three guiding verbs I might have suspected it to be about a forlorn earth-bound angel played by Julia Roberts who travels the world eliciting pearls of wisdom from charming impoverished locals in an effort to earn back her wings. It’s certainly the impression conveyed by the film’s director Ryan Murphy who takes great care to ensure that his ethereal star is never without her amber halo as she floats about in a soft-focus glow. Here’s Julia bathed in golden light and slurping up a pile of spaghetti in Italy. Here’s Julia bathed in golden light and meditating at an ashram in India. Here’s Julia bathed in golden light and charming a toothless medicine man in Bali.
In actuality Roberts plays not a fallen seraph but the very human Elizabeth Gilbert upon whose bestselling memoir the film is based. A successful writer Liz is plagued by nagging doubts about her life’s direction which culminate in a terrifying middle-of-the-night realization that she is in fact desperately unhappy and in need of drastic change. Being a proactive gal she takes immediate action dumping her aimless doofus of a husband (Billy Crudup) and taking up with vapid young actor (James Franco). But his chiseled features and new-age aphorisms fail to relieve her existential languor and so she opts for more drastic measures pulling up stakes entirely and embarking on a year-long sojourn abroad in which she eats prays and loves in that precise order in a quest for self-discovery.
It’s a common cliche to say that a certain city or country is a character in a film shot on location but in the case of Eat Pray Love the settings of Italy India and Bali are not only characters they’re the most interesting characters of the entire ensemble. Which says less about the talents of the film’s cinematographer Robert Richardson than it does about the failings of its director and co-writer Murphy. The lone face that manages to stand out among the lackluster crowd is the always sublime Richard Jenkins who plays an unctuous Texan encountered by Roberts’ meandering malcontent during the "pray" portion of her journey. A sort of Hindu Dr. Phil he plies Liz with plain-spoken spiritual advice that helps to finally wrest her from her malaise.
And what exactly is Liz so sad about? Certainly her old life doesn’t appear all that worth mourning a sentiment inadvertently reinforced by flashbacks to difficult moments in her life which frankly appear more awkward than painful. As far as I could tell her principal emotional burdens are: 1) guilt over her entirely reasonable decision to divorce her doofus husband and 2) regret over her other entirely reasonable decision to ditch the vapid actor who never seemed more than just a brisk rebound fling.
If there’s more to Liz than just a pleasant mildly interesting girl faced a few tricky but eminently solvable issues Murphy isn’t able to convey it. (He does however succeed in finding a dozen different ways to photograph a bowl of spaghetti which I suppose is a kind of accomplishment.) Liz’s journey in Eat Pray Love never feels like more than just a lovely vacation the kind of thing usually commemorated in a Facebook photo album to be perused for a few minutes or so certainly not in a massively expensive (an exact budget number is suspiciously difficult to find) enormously tedious two-hour travelogue.